By Sarah Downs
Sitting in a cool, dark theater last Thursday, ready for a little Noël Coward wit offered a much needed respite from from the smoke-mageddon outside. Fallen Angels, written by Coward in 1925, centers on the competition of two women over the same old flame. (scandale!) Each is not-so-silently convinced that she was the one he loved more. A Coward farce traffics in petulance and good manners, friendship and competition – usually over sex – and sly social commentary about the upper classes and their mask of civility, all expressed with lighthearted zing and impeccable speed. At its best it’s a whirlwind of misconstruction and chaos that rocks the boat but stops just short of capsizing.
I’m sorry to say this showcase rarely delivers. Inconsistent pick-up of cues between the actors interrupted the flow. Julia Sterroll (Elizabeth Hayden) is generally too languid, although she has her moments. Jenny Tucker as Jane Banbury possesses more of the necessary electricity to make Noel Coward work. She is the one who comes closest to hitting the mark. Still, the lack of tempo drags the piece down. Some of the physical humor lands, as in the funny dinner scene in which Julia and Jane grow steadily drunker with every glass of champagne, falling over themselves and each other as they quarrel over their shared old flame, the mysterious Maurice Duclos (a stolid Tony Javed).
As their hapless husbands, Fred Sterroll (Jeffery Passero) and Willy Banbury (Jeffrey Hardy) give competent if at times awkward performances. In a way they have their feet a little too on the ground. Hardy in particular has a fine, resonant baritone voice that makes its way easily across the footlights, and Passero makes a greater impression as someone who cares about the outcome. Trapped as she is upstage behind the furniture, Zoe Badovinac as the maid Saunders is wasted.
The well-executed set by Harlan D. Penn, with its pastel blue walls and old-fashioned furniture made for a slightly cramped space, as the stage at the Bernie Wohl Center is small, creating an impediment to swanning about in full sail. And in Noel Coward you have to do a fair bit of swanning. In the end the difficulty with Coward is you have to have high stakes without appearing to have stakes, taking everything terribly seriously yet nonchalantly – and make it look natural. The greater the silliness, the greater the need for high, ridiculous melodrama – enhancing the dynamic of poles between quarrels and laughter, friendship and suspicion, tension and relief. This Fallen Angels didn’t fly, but let’s be fair: Noel Coward is sophisticated, wordy and clever. It is difficult for even experienced actors to carry off.
Out of the Box Theater was founded specifically to feature older actors. What a refreshing contrast to youth-obsessed Hollywood. To see onstage actual humans over age 50 (I know – the horror!!) is such a pleasure. The roles work just as well on actors of a certain age as they do on youthful ‘bright young things.’ It’s nice to know we can be just as silly at 50 as we were at 30.